D.C. charter schools set bad example by taking PPP funds

Despite my recommendation that charter schools in the District forgo applying for Paycheck Protection Program money from the federal government, the Washington Post’s Perry Stein reveals today that “more than 25 charters have applied for and received these dollars, some getting cash in the two to five million dollar range. Below is a list of twenty eight charters, as tweeted by Will Perkins, that apparently obtained PPP received loans, which under the plan can be converted to grants. Mr. Perkins is an analyst at the Office of the DC Auditor.

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The charter schools join a list of prominent private schools in our area such as Sidwell Friends, Lowell School, Georgetown Preparatory, the Field School, the Edwin Burke School, and Gonzaga College High School that also accepted the funding.

According to Ms. Stein, charter and private schools justify their awards by stating that “they are legally entitled to the money and that it is a necessary infusion, with private donations drying up and enrollment numbers unclear for the next academic year. They need the money, they said, to ensure they can keep all of their employees on their payrolls.”

Shannon Hodge, the newly appointed executive director of the DC Charter School Alliance, defended the actions of the school’s she represents this way, according to the Post reporter:

“We know that costs will go up, but more importantly, there are lots of things that are unknown. . . . This program allows them to bring some stability to this uncertain situation.”

Kingsman Academy PCS, the school where Ms. Hodge recently resigned as executive director, on the table above is in the three hundred and fifty thousand to one million dollar range for government assistance.

With all of the discombobulation going on out there right now, revenue for charter schools is perhaps one of the only areas where stability actually exists. The D.C. Council recently recommended a three percent increase in the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula for the 2021 fiscal year. In addition, the charter school per pupil facility allotment is slated to go up.

As I drive to work everyday during the week and see all of the businesses that are closed, I think about all of the people now without jobs. My own family has been impacted by the pandemic. To me, taking these extremely limited PPE dollars away from those who are trying to figure out how to put food on the table is nothing less than disgusting.

I wish to thank the many charters that decided to do the right thing.

U.S. Supreme Court gives school choice greatest victory in 18 years

Yesterday, in its final day of the current term, the United States Supreme Court, in a five to four decision, ruled in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue that a school tuition tax credit program in Montana should have been allowed to include religious schools as recipients of the scholarships. The program was shuttered by the Montana Supreme Court because it permitted parents to send their children to sectarian schools as well as those that are nonreligious.

The finding of the court, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, could not have been clearer:

“The application of the no-aid provision discriminated against religious schools and the families whose children attend or hope to attend them in violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the Federal Constitution.”

In other words, the failure to allow parents to enroll their children in a religious school interfered with their free exercise of religion.

It is the most important U.S. Supreme Court decision since Zelman v. Simmons-Harris in 2002. In that case, the Court found that the inclusion of religious schools in a Cleveland private school voucher plan did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Zelman was a tremendous and hard-fought victory for school choice, and like Espinoza, was argued by the libertarian Institute for Justice. But there was also a tremendous difference between the two legal actions.

Cleveland’s state constitution does not include a Blaine Amendment, language contained in 37 state constitutions that prohibit taxpayer funds from going to religious schools. Here is what I wrote about Blaine Amendments last January when the U.S. Supreme Court head arguments in Espinoza and I predicted the eventual decision would be a victory for educational freedom:

“The heart of the today’s argument will revolve around the concept of the Blaine Amendment. Blaine Amendments were included in the constitution of 37 states in the 19th century. During this period, schools were dominated by Protestants and there was a rejection of the new wave of Catholic immigrants to this country. Blaine Amendments are named after U.S. Senator Blaine who in 1875 attempted to get a constitutional amendment passed mirroring those that were later adopted in state constitutions preventing public money going to religious institutions. Public schools at the time were already religious, according to the I.J., teaching nondenominational Protestant ideas. Catholics sought to influence the nature of instruction taking place in schools, and when that effort failed, sought funding for their own educational institutions.”

Blaine amendments have been used time and time again in the past to invalidate school choice plans that have allowed parents to pick religious schools. Now that this decision has come down and Blaine Amendments invalidated, look for the floodgates of private school choice programs to open widely across the country.

The Washington Post, as it has done since I met with former editorial page director Colbert King in 1999, again came out strongly in favor of the Supreme Court’s reasoning:

“We think there is value in, and have supported, programs that — like the one envisioned by Montana lawmakers and D.C.’s successful Opportunity Scholarship Program — help low-income parents afford a choice in their children’s education, a choice that parents empowered with the economic means exercise by moving to a particular school district or sending their children to private school. It is important to remember that the scholarship goes to the child, and that the child’s family then decides which school best meets the needs of individual students. Schools that participate in these programs must meet academic requirements established by the state or locality, and some religiously affiliated schools have proved successful in boosting student achievement, attendance and civic engagement.

Ms. Espinoza chose Stillwater Christian School not because she wanted to advance its interests but because she wanted a school that fit her daughters’ needs and was a place where they could thrive. They — and other students who stand to benefit from opportunities opened up — are the true winners.”

In the midst of a pandemic, severe economic strife, and racial unrest, we can smile for a moment over the Supreme Court’s decision. It is possible that in the future there will be other wranglings over the constitutionality of programs that allow parents to pick the school of their choice for their children. But there will never be one as significant as Espinoza.

As we approach the Independence Day Fourth of July celebration, freedom just won a great triumph.

Jessica Wodatch steps down as executive director of Two Rivers PCS

When my Facebook feed popped up yesterday, I really could not believe my eyes. My friend Jessica Wodatch announced that after 16 years it was her last day as executive director of the wildly popular Performance Management Framework Tier 1 Two Rivers Public Charter School that she co-founded. Here is what she wrote:

“After 16 beautiful years, I am stepping down as Executive Director at Two Rivers. Today we had our last closing circle together and my staff shared this beautiful video. It has been a true honor to work alongside such amazing people to do such important work. I have loved getting to see children grow and grow up, getting to know families, and collaborating with brilliant educators to create and nurture a joyful learning community. I’ll be staying on for a few months to help our talented new ED, and then I’ll be setting off to work as a leadership coach. Of course, TR will always be a part of me and in my heart, so I won’t be far away. Thanks to everyone for their long-time support of me and the school, and to the Two Rivers family for such a meaningful and loving celebration!”

I interviewed Ms. Wodatch eight years ago and it made a tremendous impression on me. I remember it like it was yesterday because she did something that I still believe is highly impressive. Upon meeting her, the Two Rivers PCS executive director walked me right up to some randomly assembled students so they could tell me about their school.

That day began a professional association with Ms. Wodatch that I have cherished ever since. One of my favorite times of the year was when I could attend one of the school’s Showcase Nights so I could hear student presentations around the academic expedition that had recently concluded. Almost always my visit ended with me experiencing tears of joy for what these scholars had accomplished. I have reprinted my interview with her below:

My time with Ms. Wodatch began with what I hope will be a new tradition for my exclusive interviews. She marched me right up to a classroom in her bright and colorful middle school off Florida Ave, N.E., and pulled out three young students for me to meet. I even had the opportunity to ask them some questions. But I will come back to these students later.

We then sat down in her office so that I could learn more about Two Rivers. The Executive Director explained to me that it was founded by about three dozen parents who were looking for alternatives to the traditional schools for their children. Ms. Wodatch was familiar with the work being done by Capital City PCS and asked their representatives if they would open a branch on Capitol Hill. While she was told that there were no plans to do so she was informed that there were a group of individuals living in this area trying to form their own school. Ms. Wodatch immediately became involved.

Two Rivers opened in 2004 with 150 students and 25 teachers. It has grown to 450 students pre-K through 8 th located in two buildings across the street from each other. Ms. Wodatch estimates that she experienced “about 20” failed facility deals before they settled on their permanent site.

It is a Performance Management Framework Tier 1 school. Their elementary school DC CAS proficiency rate in reading of 78 percent is the highest of all charter elementary schools. The 72 percent DC CAS proficiency rate in math for the elementary school is the fifth highest of all D.C. charters. The scores are not quite as high for the middle school with a 58 percent proficiency rate for reading and a 54 percent proficiency rate for math.

Ms. Wodatch was extremely eager to tell me the reasons behind the school’s success.

“First you have to understand that change takes time,” Ms. Wodatch informed me. She said that she has worked closely with her board on this subject and has received their support and encouragement.

“Second,” Ms. Wodatch explained, “you need to pick a curriculum that is research based and stick with it.” Two Rivers uses the Expeditionary Learning, which according to the school’s web site “emphasizes interactive, hands-on, project-based learning. The school focuses on the whole child, recognizing the importance of character education and the social-emotional needs of children while helping them achieve academic excellence.”

I then asked Ms. Wodatch for her motivation behind opening the school. “I have a passion for equality and justice,” she answered without a moment of hesitation. “My father was a civil rights lawyer and one of the authors of the American for Disabilities Act. I started out at Teach for America working with third graders in the Bronx. I have worked with special education children at both St. Coletta and Kingsburry Day School. Engaging with this population of kids instructs you how to teach all children. I believe that all children can learn and that they deserve the same opportunity to do well in life.”

It was at this point that I understood what really drives Ms. Wodatch. She is doing this for the children. This founder has none of the self focus I have seen from others who have created successful schools despite the tremendous odds working against them. Ms. Wodatch believes in her heart that “learning ​should be fun and relevant to the kids’ lives,” and that “building a school involves building a community.” The executive director quickly got to the bottom line. “Walking into school is like walking into a hug. Having a kid here (her three children attend Two Rivers) makes me a want to be a better parent.”

These notions are consistent with her belief that the school needs to be welcoming and diverse. There are other foundations behind her work and that of her staff. For example, they believe that the arts and physical education are not extras to be provided as an obligation but subjects that should be fully integrated into the curriculum. Music and Spanish are also emphasized at the school.

Besides the high academic results, the end result of these efforts to provide a truly special and caring learning environment are an extremely stable staff and student population. “In the history of the school not one teacher has left to accept another teaching position somewhere else,” Ms. Wodatch proudly said. “On the student population side our re-enrollment rate is around 90 percent.”

But the school is not content to stay in one place regarding their progress. The staff spends time every week on professional development and is heavily dependent on data to drive student assessment. According to Ms. Wodatch “the goal is not to just teach the basics but for our kids to learn 21 st century skills. We focus on subjects such as equality, expert thinking, and complex communications.”

Which now brings me back to the students I met at the beginning of my visit. All three were well- dressed, professional, and extremely articulate. They looked me straight in the eye as they spoke. These kids had a confidence you don’t usually see in kids their age.

The students uniformly described their school as a community. When I asked whether they missed their friends since Two Rivers is not a neighborhood school they each shook their heads no. “We have made plenty of new friends here,” remarked one of them, “and the work is harder than it would be at my regular school.”

The fight for educational equity is not over

I’m inspired this morning by the words of my friend Virginia Walden Ford, the woman who became the symbol of the fight for private school vouchers for disadvantaged children in Washington, D.C. Below I reprint her Facebook post from yesterday:

I am a Black Woman. I grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. When my father, William Harry Fowler, was named as the first Black Assistant Superintendent of the Little Rock School District in the late 60’s, “they” burned a cross in our yard and threw a rock through our window. From that point forward, I can say that I have seen and experienced racism my entire life.

Systemic racism is rooted deeply in America and, therefore, cannot easily be corrected. For many of us who have spent a lifetime fighting for racial justice, this is a moment of reckoning that has eluded us for far too long.

I read this today and was inspired.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced”…James Baldwin- from The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (2010)

Therefore, I believe that for any change to occur, that it absolutely must be faced. That is why I am happy to see young people taking to the streets to exercise their constitutional right to protest. The world needs to know that BLACK LIVES MATTER. Seeing their faces in protest means America MUST face the issues that have been prominent in our lives far too long.

I have been fighting for justice for a long time, longer maybe than many of the young people who are out protesting have been alive. In all of those years of activism, I have learned about the power of love and the power of hope. Even in times of great struggle, it is important that we do not forget love or lose hope. We can make the world better, but only if we work together. When we come together as people of all races, sexes, and creeds we create change.

When we were fighting for educational opportunities for the young people of Washington, D.C., people tried to divide us. Well, first they tried to dismiss us, and when they could not do that, they tried to defeat us, and when they could not do that, they tried to divide us. It is important that the people fighting for justice today remember the lessons that we learned then. Do not let the most extreme voices define you. Stay true to yourselves. Find people who want to help and work with them. Forgive. Be kind. But fight HARD for what is right and never give up.

I am not done fighting for educational opportunities for kids. I am inspired by the young people making their voices heard. They give me hope for a better world. Let us get to work making this happen.

#BLACKLIVESMATTER

Blessings,
Virginia Walden Ford

We can never be done fighting for educational opportunities for kids. I may be overly optimistic, but I believe that if we had figured out how to close the academic achievement gap years ago we would not have seen the pandemic kill so many in the Black community. If we had solved the challenge of providing all children a quality education independent of their zip codes then the economic damage we are witnessing today would not have fallen so much harder on minorities.

We know the right thing to do when it comes to public education reform. We must provide quality seats to all students in whatever form that takes, private school vouchers, charter schools, or traditional ones. But we must act now. This should be the lesson from current events.

D.C. Democrats for Education Reform apologizes for campaign mailers

At the end of May, the Washington City Paper’s Mitch Ryals identified serious problems with the accuracy of campaign literature distributed by the D.C. Democrats for Education Reform, a pro-charter school organization. The pieces attacked Janeese Lewis George, who successfully challenged DFER’s endorsed candidate incumbent Brandon Todd in Ward 4, and Brooke Pinto, who won her Ward 2 contest against Patrick Kennedy, who was also favored by the education group.

The criticism of Ms. George has proved to be especially problematic in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd. The flyers stated, according to Mr. Ryals, “Janeese Lewis George bragged: ‘I will divest from MPD!'” . . . “That’s politician-speak for cutting police officers in Ward 4!” The City Paper reporter quotes another piece as stating, “Our police officers have dedicated their lives to keeping Ward 4 families safe. But Janeese Lewis George calls them ‘one of the greatest dangers to the future of urban life.'”

Here is how Mr. Ryals explains the positions of Ms. George regarding the police and law enforcement:

“The first quote about divesting from the police department originates from an October 2019 tweet, which initially left little room for ambiguity (she punctuated the tweet with a ‘full stop.’)

George clarified in a follow-up tweet that she ‘would redirect some of the $550 million in funding that is currently allocated for policing toward violence prevention and violence interruption programs…’

George tells LL [Loose Lips] she doesn’t want to reduce the police force, but she is in favor of using a part of its budget to fund public health approaches to address crime—violence interrupters or putting more social workers in schools.

‘It’s about how we’re using our officers that is the problem,’ she says. ‘Officers sitting in cars is not effective. That’s a leadership problem. I’m not blaming the officers. I’m looking to leadership and asking ‘What are you doing to reduce crime?'”

In other words, Ms. George’s positions are consistent with the defund the police movement that is now sweeping the country.

A couple of days ago, DFER apologized for their literature:

“During this election season, DFER-DC endorsed Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd, a champion for education reforms that have helped make D.C. the fastest improving urban school district in the country and have better prepared Black and Brown children for college, career, and life. In furtherance of this, DFER-DC distributed mailers to Ward 4 voters informing them of Janeese Lewis George’s position on divesting resources from traditional police programs, a position that polling showed Ward 4 voters opposed. These mailers oversimplified a more nuanced conversation about public safety without calling out the problematic history of policing Black people, causing misunderstanding and pain on an issue vitally important to the students and families DFER-DC serves. We have taken the time to reflect on the implications of these mailers: We made a mistake, and we have learned from it.”

The director of DFER-DC originally explained the thinking behind the release of the flyers to the City Paper this way:

“Ramin Taheri, director of DFER-DC, says the organization crafted its mailers based on poll data. In Ward 4, for example, 68 percent of the 303 registered Democrats polled say they are less likely to vote for someone who wants to cut police officers from the force, according to a memo Taheri shared with LL.”

Ms. George opined to Mr. Ryals that the literature was meant to spread fear. Now, it appears that the flyers were as inappropriate as they were at the time they were distributed.

Failure is not an option when it comes to educating D.C. students

I learned a few things from reviewing the testimony of Shannon Hodge and Dr. Ramona Edelin offered at yesterday’s D.C. Council Hearing on the Budget before the Committee on Education and the Committee of the Whole. First, I observed that the city is willing to consider a charter school co-location at the closed Spingarn High School. It’s not much of a concession as the entire building should have been turned over to charters. I guess its 225,000 square feet is even too much for DCPS to handle.

I was extremely satisfied to see, as indicated by Ms. Hodge, that the 2.2 percent increase in the charter school facility allotment has made it into Mayor Muriel Bowser’s revised fiscal year 2021 budget. I previously reported that she had pushed for a three percent increase to the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula, which was a decrease of one percent from her original plan, but there was no mention of the revenue for buildings. I also discovered that the Council may push to restore the entire four percent jump in the UPSFF.

Moreover, Ms. Hodge pointed out that a regulatory change by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education had the effect of lowering alternative education dollars for many schools “serving adults and disconnected youth” by twenty percent. She called on the money to be restored at a time when this type of education has become even more crucial in a tenuous economy.

Lastly, the structure of the new DC Charter School Alliance is beginning to become fleshed out. Dr. Edelin revealed that she will become a senior advisor to the group. In her remarks, Ms. Hodge filled in her new role as the Alliance’s executive director:

“As I look ahead to my new position, I want to pledge today my commitment to use my leadership in this newly created organization as a willing partner. A partner with whom you can always reach out to for advice and with whom you can work. A partner who will praise and criticize when necessary but who will also work alongside you to find solutions to overcome, not just close, the opportunity gaps for students who need it most. It is a partnership that must succeed, as failure is a cost that is too high a price for our students, our families, our communities, and our city to pay.”

These comments are important because so far we have not lived up to the underling commitment of public school reform made over twenty years ago in the nation’s capital that any student that needed a quality seat would get one. Instead what we have are wait lists as long as the eye can see for families trying to get their children into high-performing charters and an academic achievement gap that is one of the largest in the country that will not budge.

I’m hoping with every cell in my body that when we finally emerge from the deep fog of the pandemic and racial strife that these are not just words.

Kingsman Academy PCS’s Shannon Hodge to lead new D.C. charter advocacy group

Yesterday afternoon it was announced that Shannon Hodge, the co-founcer and executive director of Kingsman Acadamy PCS, will be the first executive director of the new DC Charter School Alliance, the new advocacy group formed by the merger of FOCUS and the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools.

The group could not have made a better choice.

Board chair of the Alliance, Friendship PCS CEO Patricia Brantley wrote regarding the decision, “As many of you know, Shannon was selected after an exhaustive national search. We are thankful to each of you who supported the search, provided feedback on what our organization needed in a leader, and/or participated in screening interviews. In the coming weeks, we will share more news about the new organization, including introducing our board of directors, policy priorities, and more.”

About Ms. Hodge, Ms. Brantley commented:

“Prior to founding Kingsman, Shannon was the executive director of a DC charter school, serving students at risk of dropping out of high school. Before becoming a charter school leader, she was an attorney at the law firm of Hogan Lovells. As a lawyer, former high school counselor, and guidance director, Shannon has dedicated her career to fighting for the needs of our most underserved community members.”

She sure has. The story behind Ms. Hodge’s rise in the D.C. charter school movement should be turned into a book. It was TenSquare’s Josh Kern who hired Hogan Lovells to assist him in his work turning the old Options PCS around when he was brought in as the school’s court receiver. Ms. Hodge had prior experience assisting special education children. When Mr. Kern needed someone to take over the school, he asked Ms. Hodge if she was interested. She accepted the position.

Therefore, even though Mr. Kern was not selected as the new executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board as I had recommended, it is fantastic to see his legacy in the District expand for all to see.

Over the years I have frequently posted Ms. Hodge’s testimony in front of the D.C. Council because her arguments are consistently perfectly articulated, logical, direct, and forceful. She is always respectful and polite in her presentations. I would have published more of them but I thought it would look like I was giving her favorable treatment over other school leaders. I interviewed Ms. Hodge in 2107. Here is a portion from that session:

“In the future, the DC Public Charter School Board’s Alternative Accountability Framework tool will be relied upon to provide a public quality report.  However, Ms. Hodge is not waiting for this measure to develop a high performing organization.  ‘Success at Kingsman Academy means more than making sure students earn a high school diploma. It means preparing students to lead successful lives after graduation. We want our graduates to thrive in college, in the workforce, or in the military,’ the Kingsman Academy executive director related passionately.  ‘We want them to be active leaders and responsible citizens, to provide for their families, to be lifelong learners. They deserve nothing less.’”

This is a great day for our local charter school movement.

Dr. Michelle J. Walker-Davis hired to replace Scott Pearson as D.C. charter board executive director

The DC Public Charter School Board announced yesterday afternoon that Dr. Michelle J. Walker-Davis will succeed Scott Pearson as its executive director beginning in July. Ms. Walker-Davis has extremely impressive credentials. She obtained two masters degree’s and a doctorate from the Teachers College, Columbia University, all centered around education leadership.

Her professional career, according to the DC PCSB’s press release, includes seven years in the District of Columbia. She worked under Mayor Anthony Williams as a senior advisor on education and as chief of strategic planning and policy for DCPS, as well as a stint in the city’s Office of Budget and Planning.

After leaving D.C., Dr. Walker-Davis spent nine years employed by the St. Paul, Minnesota Public Schools. She moved up to the chief executive officer role just under the school superintendent. Her most recent position has been as executive director of Generation Next, a policy nonprofit that attempts to close the academic achievement gap in Minneapolis and St. Paul. She has experience as a member of several boards of directors.

Both the DC PCSB and the Washington Post’s Perry Stein remark that Ms. Walker-Davis is “a first-generation African-American of Caribbean descent.” Ms. Stein has added that Dr. Walker-Davis has young children who she has entered into the My School DC lottery to determine where they will be taught in the fall.

Of course, this is an exceptionally interesting time to be assuming the job. Charter school advocacy has been weak recently in our town where charters now educate 46 percent of all public school students, or 46,500 pupils. Word on the street is that a new organization that is being formed by the merging of FOCUS and the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools is about to be announced. The FOCUS -driven funding inequity lawsuit against the Mayor is ongoing, and Ms. Bowser continues to ignore demands that she turn numerous surplus DCPS facilities over to the charter sector.

In addition, she will of course be working in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis and what that means for the way that public education is delivered in the nation’s capital. Ms. Stein described the current educational landscape this way:

“But charter schools are facing increasing political resistance nationwide. In the District, the latest scores on standardized tests show the traditional D.C. public school system outperforming the city’s charter schools, although both sectors have shown slow improvements in recent years. The board approved five new charter schools to open this summer in Washington despite growing concerns about vacant seats on existing campuses in both sectors. And for the first time since D.C. charters were established in 1996, enrollment dropped in the sector this academic year after the closure of five low-performing or financially troubled campuses.”

Given this environment, Dr. Walker-Davis’s first comments about the unique position of our charters are highly discouraging:

“As a parent of school-aged children, I know from experience that most parents aren’t choosing between traditional and public charter schools,” said Dr. Walker-Davis.  “Parents  want schools that can successfully and effectively educate their children — schools that fit different learning styles, cultures, and interests.”

I will be watching closely to see if Ms. Walker-Davis is the one speaking for the board as was the case with Mr. Pearson, or if this function will revert back to the chair as it operated under Mr. Tom Nida’s leadership. This will offer direct evidence as who is setting the DC PCSB’s future direction.

Could Covid-19 be the fix to the charter school facility issue?

Now that it is abundantly clear that Mayor Muriel Bowser has no intention of transferring shuttered DCPS facilities to charter schools, a new solution is needed for identifying building in which these schools can operate. However, it appears that an old remedy is about to become much more relevant.

The last five charters that have been approved for new locations will open in commercial space. Capital Village PCS has taken over the former home of City Arts and Prep PCS, and Girls Global Academy PCS has settled into 733 8th Street, N.W., the site of the Calvary Baptist Church. Appletree Early Learning PCS will join the Richard Wright PCS for Journalism and Media Arts at 475 School Street, S.E. that was part of the campus of the closed Southeastern University. Finally Rocketship PCS will open in Ward 5 in a building owned by the Cafritz Foundation.

In the past it was exceptionally difficult for charters to find offices in which to locate. But now, with businesses forced to close due to the coronavirus and employees working remotely, the ecosystem has been altered.

Much is being written about how Covid-19 is making companies re-think the way its staffs work. Telecommuting is now the new normal for many individuals. The pandemic, it seems, has changed the way that business is conducted that may have a lasting effect.

The long-term impact could be a glut in office space where there once was a tight market. This should lower the square foot price of leasing and increase availability by leaps and bounds. A slower economy will decrease the costs of build outs and renovations. These trends will make it much easier for charter schools to afford these sites.

While there is a slogan that out of tragedies come opportunities, the new availability of commercial real estate for charter schools is one that I would have willingly given up.

D.C. charter schools take cash in lieu of permanent facilities

Last February, which now seems like a decade ago, Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser recommended a four percent increase to the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula for DCPS and charter schools in her fiscal 2021 budget. Then the coronavirus hit. At the time the city had a $1.43 billion rainy day fund saved up. Now the Bowser Administration has revealed that the economic downturn the District is currently experiencing will result in $722 million less in revenue for the 2020 fiscal year and 774 million fewer dollars next year.

With numbers such as these there was tremendous fear on the minds of public education supporters that the proposed jump in the UPSFF would be eliminated. Yesterday, Ms. Bowser released her revised proposed budget for FY 2020 and the bump in the UPSFF went from four percent to three.

Charter representatives are beyond thrilled at the news. Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, exclaimed on Twitter, “To raise education funding during this time of fiscal hardship is truly heroic. Well done, @MayorBowser” Patricia Brantley, the CEO of Friendship PCS wrote on the same platform, “‘Our public schools & our children, our teachers, everybody… we know they are going to be coming back. When they come back, we want to send a clear message that their schools are going to be ready. We are not going to take a single step back.’ Thank you @MayorBowser

In a press release dated yesterday, Friends of Choice in Urban Schools interim executive director Anne Herr commented:

“COVID-19 has put incredible pressure on the district’s budget, and we recognize that Mayor Bowser had to make tough choices this year. We applaud her for increasing education funding and investing in DC students. These investments are critical to ensure students have access to the instructional and health supports that will be necessary to have them back on track by Summer 2021. We look forward to working with the Education Committee and other members of the D.C. Council to ensure that these increases are part of the final budget so that students have what they need to thrive.” 

However, an update on finances was not the only information the Mayor shared yesterday that is of interest to our local charter school movement. She also announced several decisions regarding excess DCPS facilities. As captured by the Washington Post’s Perry Stein:

“She plans to move the new Bard High School Early College to a permanent location in 2023 at the original Malcolm X Elementary — a shuttered campus in Southeast Washington — and allocate $80 million to the facility. The closed Spingarn High School in Northeast Washington would be home to the D.C. Infrastructure Academy. Excel Academy Public School will remain permanently at its current location at the old Birney building in Southeast Washington, which the city owns but has been leasing to charters. Bowser’s proposal would give charter school operators the option to lease the closed Wilkinson Elementary in Southeast Washington by 2024.”

Malcolm X and Springarn were two buildings charter supporters loudly and repeatedly called on Ms. Bowser to release for their use. Remember the collective disgust the sector expressed when a video of the empty and deteriorating Springarn made its appearance on social media?

If and when Wilkinson is actually turned over to charters that would make a total of two former DCPS building turned over to charters in Ms. Bowser’s two terms as chief executive. This is a horrible record.

But perhaps the bigger disappointment is what the decision regarding the Birney building means for DC Prep PCS. As you may recall, the charter has leased the ground floor of this location which it plans to use to house the fourth and fifth grade of its Anacostia Middle School. It still needs a permanent home. As detailed by DC Prep’s CEO Laura Maestas during my interview with her last December:

“Building Pathway’s lease with Excel is coming to an end, but for over a year we have not been able to get an answer as to whether Excel is staying or leaving the property.  The building lease is held by Building Pathways for 12 years with D.C.’s Department of General Services and it specifies that a charter school will be housed in the Birney Building.”

In 2018 Excel Academy relinquished its charter and became part of DCPS. Therefore, it really does not have the right to stay at its current location. Now it appears that DC Prep will have to go ahead and develop the property it purchased on Frankford Street, S.E., a scenario that in the past has received heavy criticism from the community. Alternately, it can once again begin the hunt for another space.

Highly discouraging is that in all the high fives delivered to the Mayor there was not a peep about the facility moves. It appears that Ms. Bowser found a perfectly effective way to silence our voices. The solution was money.